Varadkar insists he is not planning on calling a general election
Strong exit poll measuring party voting intentions gives Taoiseach pause for thought
An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD casts his vote at Scoil Thomáis, Laural Lodge, Castleknock, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
Over the space of a few minutes in Dublin Castle on Saturday, it seemed as if Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had a different voice whispering in each ear but did not know which to heed.
Michael D Higgins was about to be officially declared victor in the presidential election, but the results of an RTÉ exit poll measuring general election party voting intentions had captured the attention of those in Government Buildings.
It showed Fine Gael on 35 per cent, with Fianna Fáil 13 points behind on 22 per cent. If repeated in a general election, Mr Varadkar could easily build a majority government.
Labour and the Green Party – on 7 and 3 per cent respectively – plus others, perhaps a few Independents, could give Mr Varadkar a majority coalition, an option the Taoiseach privately tells people he would take. He is also known to have suggested that Fine Gael could climb even higher than 35 per cent in a general election campaign.
Surely, the Taoiseach was asked on RTÉ’s Six One news programme from Dublin Castle, he would like his own majority in the Dáil, free from the strictures of confidence and supply?
“I have been head of a Government and part of a Government for the past three years that has very much been the party for people who get up early in the morning, the party for middle Ireland,” he said.
“We have done a lot for middle Ireland. There’s full employment; increases in the minimum wage; new benefits for the self-employed; affordable childcare; cuts in income tax and USC. We did that with 25 per cent of the vote and a minority Government. Imagine what we could do with a majority.”
The hare was running. Fine Gael TDs listening to their leader assumed a general election was coming.
Minutes later, at a press conference elsewhere in the Castle, Mr Varadkar shut the door he had just left ajar, and insisted he was “not planning on calling an election”. A similar exit poll after the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment, he said, had put Fine Gael even higher.
“That exit poll said we were on 36 per cent and people said: ‘Are you going to call an election?’ and I said no. And they didn’t believe me. I hope you believe me now. I am not planning on calling an election.
“My focus is on getting the people’s work done, on keeping our economy safe, creating more jobs, securing a good deal on Brexit and dealing with some of those very difficult issues we face at the moment around healthcare and housing. So my focus is absolutely on the job as Taoiseach and leading a government.”
The two interventions may have shown someone who is genuinely torn. They could be seen as a warning to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and his party to agree quickly an extension to the confidence and supply deal or face the electorate.
Mr Varadkar’s initial comments were primarily a rejection of the charge that Peter Casey, the unexpected runner-up in the presidential contest, was really speaking for the people of middle Ireland whom Taoiseach identifies as his own.
Mr Casey sought to lay claim to the concerns of middle Ireland – those who “pay all their bills” only to provide others with houses and benefits – in his campaign.
Mr Varadkar said he and his Government were “standing up for people who get up early in the morning”. The strong exit poll indicates that a frustrated middle Ireland vote is not abandoning Fine Gael. In fact, the party’s support has remained remarkably steady in recent polling.
Senior figures in both main parties warn against over-interpreting Mr Casey’s performance but it can be argued the absence of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil from the presidential contest opened up space for Mr Casey, who capitalised on controversy over comments about the Travelling community to achieve over 20 per cent of first preferences.
While there was largely no dissent in either party at the decision both Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin made to back Mr Higgins for a second term, the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil may have another consequence of the presidential election to reckon with.
Mr Casey brought the issue of the Travelling community into the centre of political debate and TDs in both parties– some privately, some publicly – say that tensions that exist between the settled communities and Travellers need to be addressed.
The risk is that it becomes an issue in next year’s council elections in particular, with candidates taking Mr Casey’s playbook down to a very local level.
One senior Fianna Fáil figure said the party would not tolerate any of its candidates attempting to imitate Mr Casey’s campaign, with a TD adding: “They’d be pulled off tickets straight away.” Independent candidates are seen as more likely to follow Mr Casey’s lead.
Mr Varadkar, when asked if Mr Casey could join Fine Gael, pointedly remarked that party members must adhere to the values of the party. He also said that an element of Mr Casey’s vote was because of “anti-Traveller sentiment and that is not something I can condone”.
Of more concern to Mr Varadkar, it seems, is when to capitalise on his party’s popularity.